“The heart has reasons of which reason knows nothing.” ~ Blaise Pascal
I’ve always been guided by my intuition. Every major decision of my life has been directed by a “knowing” that came from a mysterious place within. I used to compete horses professionally. Upon my first glimpse of two of the most important horses of my past, I knew they would be mine one day. I knew this despite the fact that I had no money with which to buy a horse, and was not looking for one at the time.
The same thing happened when I read about the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania (where I attended grad school). I knew instantly that MAPP was the program for me. I knew this despite the fact that I was only one online course into my Bachelors degree, and had no reason to believe I’d ever be accepted into such a competitive program.
When I met a group of Flagstaff runners at a race in Colorado, I knew they would one day be a large part of my life, even though I am a Canadian, and was living in Vancouver, far from having any sort of career to transplant. Now, I’m enjoying a wonderful career living in Flagstaff.
Somehow, I’ve always had a sense of what would be long before I’d learn how it would become. Studying these phenomenon has been a great fascination of my life.
In November, I wrote a piece about following your intuition. Today, I’m excited to have more to bring you on this topic. In this one I’ll get more specific, and discuss how to listen to your heart (literally, your physical heart) when it comes to deciding on actions. The heart and intuition are difficult to separate—impossible really. Instead of distinguishing between them, I’m going to try to enable you to hear your intuition through the sensations of your heart within your body. Yes, I’ll try to explain how to hear with a feeling. But first, lets discuss the brain a little bit, and what science says about decision-making.
Intuition versus Reason: The Head or the Heart?
To discuss intuition versus reason is to invite science and spirit into the same room; it is to allow anecdote to dance with evidence. This is precisely what psychologists Daniel Kahneman (winner of the Nobel Prize for economics) and Amos Tversky enabled in their research on human decision making. This renowned research partnership has provided much of our understanding regarding how human beings make decisions (which is explained in depth in their book, Thinking Fast and Slow). In summary, Kahneman and Tversky explain that humans have two systems of thinking: system one (the intuition) is automatic, and system two (the intellect/ our reasoning) is applied with more effort. Many of system one’s decisions are based on past experiences. System one instantly recognizes patterns we have encountered before, and makes a judgment about them much faster than rational thinking can. Examples of system-one thinking are liking or disliking someone immediately upon a first meeting, or quickly recognizing a Picasso painting if you have some prior knowledge of art. System one is instant and intuitive in its preferences.
System two involves more deliberate mental processing. For example, system two would be used when listing the pros and cons of different schools your children could attend (although in all likelihood, system one has already started to communicate an emotional preference to you.). Despite the common claim that one is using one’s rational mind (system two) more often than one’s emotions or intuition (system one), research indicates that this is not the case. Humans make decisions far more often out of system one thinking.
There is a lot of benefit that arises from system one thinking. First, it is efficient. Second, it is often quite accurate, as long as you have some knowledge about the decision you are trying to make. The more experience a person has in a subject area, the more accurate his system one thinking. The subject of how humans make decisions is nuanced and fascinating. Thinking Fast and Slow is an incredible resource if you want to understand the intricacies of this in greater detail. For where I want to take you, it is enough for you to know that intuition although imperfect, is often accurate.
Science Aside: What Does Spirituality Say About the Heart?
It will come as no surprise that the physical heart holds great significance within many religious frameworks: Hinduism states that the heart is the home of the soul, and the doorway between humans and heaven. The ancient Chinese view the heart of thinking, reasoning and emotions, and Aztecs also hold this belief. The ancient Egyptians agree, and have written that God speaks to a person through his heart. Jewish texts explain that the heart is the location of the conscience. Christianity highlights the word, “heart” is used eight-hundred times in the Christian Bible. For example, here is an excerpt from Samuel (16:7): "The Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart" [Samuel 16:7]. The heart may be one of the most powerful and universal symbols of human kind.
Despite the prevalent references to the heart in religion, and to what the heart “says” through intuition, there are comparatively few references to the sensations of the heart itself in literature. A growing number of researchers and psychotherapists are now highlighting the importance of become more aware of the sensations within our bodies in association with our emotions.
In her book, Radical Acceptance, psychologist, Tara Brach thoroughly explains strategies that can help people develop a greater connection between their physical body and emotions. She offers numerous free meditations that guide our attention to gain greater awareness of the connection between our bodies and our feelings. Brach explains that our reactions to stimuli are actually reactions to sensations to our own bodies. By becoming more aware of our bodies we are more accurately able to interpret the events around us. Brach writes:
“All our reactions to people, to situations, to thoughts in our mind – are actually reactions to the kind of sensations that are arising in our body. When we become riveted on someone’s ineptness and are bursting with impatience, we are reacting to our own unpleasant sensations; when we are attracted to someone and filled with longing and fantasy, we are reacting to pleasant sensations. Our entire swirl of reactive thoughts, emotions and behaviors springs from this ground of reacting to sensations. When these sensations are unrecognized, our lives are lost in the waterfall of reactivity – we disconnect from living presence, from full awareness, from our heart.”
Experiments with the Heart
Now, I want to bring you back to my own exploration of my heart. Due to the some personal experiences, the subject of hearing my heart has become important. Now, I check in with my body before making any decision of significance – even before suggesting a particular method to a client. I’ve noticed that when I’m at my best I can feel a subtle sensation in the center of my chest – roughly where my heart is. When I’ve completed my daily meditation I feel this also. Often, this sensation is just a subtle presence; sometimes it feels like a warm current of energy. I feel like I’m at my best in the world when I’m feeling my heart. My thoughts come more clearly, and I’m braver and more compassionate. I’ve started to ask my own heart, “what should I do, or say?” when trying to make important decisions. The words that come to mind when I’m connected to the sensation in my heart feel true, and wise. They feel right.
Conversely, when I’m struggling with negative emotion there is an emptiness in my chest space. I can’t feel anything there. Often in this case I’m aware of a sensation of electricity in my peripheries which I’ve learned to associate with fear. Fear lives at the surface. Fear hides under the skin. Sometimes when I’m afraid, I hear my heart beating—but this is not the same as feeling my heart. It is just listening to a muscle working on demand. When I ask myself for advice while in fear, I feel like the answer comes from my head (even above my head, often to the right to be honest). Frequently this answer limits me, shrinks my courage, and seeks to disconnect me from others. I’ve learned that It is not to be trusted.
When athletes come to me asking for help with difficult decisions, I will often ask them what their heart says. The responses I’ve received to this question is mixed. Many are un-phased by my question and answer easily. They’re not even surprised that I asked. However, some respond, “I don’t know,” and look at me with confused expressions.
Anecdotally, it seems like the athletes who are able to answer the question of “what does your heart say,” are currently performing well, and those who cannot aren’t. For example, when I asked an ambitious young golfer asked where she “feels” her dream of being a pro golfer, she immediately placed her and on her heart. “Oh, here,” she said confidently. When I asked a teary track athlete where in her body she feels confidence in her abilities, she thought for a moment and then said, “here,” placing her hand on her forehead. This athlete continues to struggle.
So how do we learn to “hear” our hearts? And how can we develop the ability to feel them? One way to begin is to simply place your hand over your heart when you are thinking. Direct your attention to the feeling in your heart center when you consider one decision over another. Is there one option that warms your heart? Is there one that brings about a feeling of happiness, safety, or relaxation more than another? If so, your heart, your intuition, and your system one thinking are probably saying this is the decision you should choose.
If you have trouble feeling a sensation in your heart center, try this exercise: place your hand over your heart and recall a memory of time spent with someone you love. You don’t have to envision the whole relationship, just one moment. Experience this memory as vividly as you can, which means incorporating all the senses. What did you see, hear, and smell during that moment? How were you feeling emotionally? If you take your time, and sink into the memory thoroughly (spend 2-3 minutes remembering), it’s likely you will feel a warm sensation grow in your heart center. If you practice this regularly, you’ll develop a greater ability to hear your heart.
Personally, I’m just beginning to learn to access my heart. However, as my ability to connect to the physical feelings within my heart grows, I’m finding this to be a useful strategy to guide my actions. I’m consistently proud of the decisions I make which have been guided by my heart. I’m excited to continue to experiment with this “new and ancient” tool.
“For me there is only the traveling on the paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its whole length – and there I travel looking, looking breathlessly." - Carlos Castaneda
About the Author
Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
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